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With danger everywhere, Dylan Dog is on the case’ The Conspirator: case closed

by Mark Burger

Named for neither Bob or Snoop, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night is the second screen adaptation of the Dylan Dog comicbook series by Tiziano Sclavi. The first, known as Dellamorte Dellamore (1994) and released in the US as Cemetery Man, was directed by Michele Soavi and starred Rupert Everett in the title role.

The new film, with the action and characters transplanted to New Orleans, stars Brandon Routh as Dylan, the hard-boiled, but undeniably hunky, private investigator with an keen insight into the supernatural. He knows that werewolves, vampires and zombies exist — because he’s encountered them all and dispatched his fair share of same over the years. Soon, circumstances will compel him into a reprise, otherwise the world is doomed. (Big surprise there.)

To say that Dylan Dog has been dumbed down in this adaptation might be an understatement, as it emphasizes comedy as much as horror, and liberally seasoned with nods to film noir and horror in-jokes. It’s a tricky business to carry off the combination, and it’s simply beyond the grasp of director Kevin Munroe, also one of the film’s executive producers — and there are more than a dozen producers billed in the credits. This is an extremely messy film, not including the gore and body parts (which push the boundaries of its very questionable PG-13 rating).

Sam Huntington, who played Jimmy Olsen to Routh’s Clark Kent in Superman Returns (2006), fulfills almost the same function here as Dylan’s sidekick Marcus, an inveterate chatterbox who is murdered early but is soon revived as a zombie. There’s too much Huntington, and too jokey a tone, for Dylan Dog to achieve or maintain much tension.

There’s good use of the New Orleans locations, and action scenes aren’t bad, if hardly original in the wake of the Resident Evil and Underworld films. Werewolves, vampires and zombies have lost much of their novelty in recent years, as anyone can attest. Nothing tarnishes the luster like mainstream acceptance.

The mystery angle is pretty flimsy, although the film isn’t wanting for red herrings, including Anita Briem as the blonde who hires Dylan; the ever-smooth Taye Diggs as a silky crime lord who happens to be a vampire; Peter Stormare, slicing the ham (pun intentional) as a werewolf kingpin who runs a successful meat-packing business; and pro wrestler Kurt Angle as Stormare’s fierce son, who likes to get furry when he finishes off Dad’s dirty work for him. Everyone plays it very casually.

Through it all, however, Routh strides through the proceedings with a bemused aplomb that goes a long, long way here. He’s not quite old (or remotely worn) enough to totally convince as a film-noir hero, but that’s part of his appeal in the role. He’s wise to it, and he’s wise to the plentiful silliness surrounding him. So he plays it straight and manages to hold together — if only just — a film that threatens to come unglued at any moment.

The combination of fascinating historical subject matter and blue-chip talent, chiefly producer/director Robert Redford, promises far better than The Conspirator has to offer.

This is undoubtedly one of Redford’s least effective directorial outings, although it contains a number of themes that have marked his work, both as a filmmaker and as an actor: morality, ethics, loyalty, truth. But The Conspirator mostly aspires to exploring these aspects, which are not fully realized.

Barely 90 years into its history, this nation is dealt a pair of devastating blows: the Civil War, from which the scars have not begun to remotely heal, and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865.

In a bold, widespread move to expedite recovery from the Civil War and to eradicate the sentiment that led to Lincoln’s murder, the trial of the accused conspirators in John Wilkes Booth’s plot is to be swift and severe. In the case of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who owned a boardinghouse at which the conspirators sometimes congregated, if (and when) found guilty she would become the first woman ever to be executed in the United States.

“So be it” seems to be the widespread public sentiment, and even for her attorney, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). Initially cynical about the case, his examination of the facts and the letter of the law — which seems to be bending rather liberally during the trial — awaken his latent idealism.

Too many characters become archetypes in Steven Solomon’s screenplay, rendering the film both mechanical and melodramatic. These characters are bereft of surprise. They fulfill their functions and that’s about it. Penn suffers nobly, as does Evan Rachel Wood as her daughter. McAvoy furrows his brow as his conscience is awakened. A typecast Danny Huston plays the prosecutor, oozing smarm and confidence. He’s going to win and he knows it. So does Colm Meaney, presiding over the trial. Justin Long, looking extremely out of place (never mind the mustache) and Alexis Bledel play Aiken’s friend and fiance (respectively, of course), both concerned about the impact it will have on Aiken’s career. Guess which one finds the pressure too much?

No one’s an embarrassment but no one emerges a standout, either. Only Kevin Kline, as the imperious, Machiavellian secretary of war Edwin Stanton, and Tom Wilkinson as the mentor who “bequests” Aiken the case, breathe much life into their characters, and that’s because they throw a little juice into them. Even the cinematography, by the reliable Newton Thomas Sigel, is drab.

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